Combustible Celluloid
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With: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, John Cleese, Robbie Coltrane, Warwick Davis, Richard Griffiths, Richard Harris, Ian Hart, John Hurt, Alan Rickman, Fiona Shaw, Maggie Smith, Julie Walters
Written by: Steve Kloves, based on the book by J.K. Rowling
Directed by: Chris Columbus
MPAA Rating: PG for some scary moments and mild language
Running Time: 152
Date: 11/04/2001

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

3 Stars (out of 4)

And It Stoned Me

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

When I approached reading the first Harry Potter novel last year, I was skeptical. How could something that sold so well be any good? Wouldn't it be dumbed-down, shooting for the lowest common denominator? But, lo and behold, I loved it. Author J.K. Rowling managed to combine humor, suspense, strongly detailed characters, sustained mystery, and layers of good and evil in her so-called children's books. I devoured the next two books in the series and waited breathlessly for the famous fourth book to arrive.

Now, however, I approached Chris Columbus' movie adaptation with twice the skepticism. Wouldn't the film betray everything the books stood for? These books caused children to read again, to use their imaginations and make pictures in their mind's eye. The movie would spell everything out and douse that little spark before it could turn into a flame.

Not to mention that Columbus is not the most talented or subtle filmmaker on the planet. In fact, I've always suspected that Columbus himself dabbled in the black arts. How else could such awful, bludgeoning, insulting films as Home Alone, Home Alone 2 and Mrs. Doubtfire bring in such huge box office returns?

My hopes were buoyed some when I learned that screenwriter Steve Kloves had adapted Rowling's book. Kloves wrote one of last year's best scripts when he adapted Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys for director Curtis Hanson.

In the end, hope won out over skepticism. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone turns out to be a delightful entertainment.

Briefly, the plot (for the small percentage who don't know) involves Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), the orphan son of deceased wizards, who is raised by his horrible aunt and uncle before being whisked away to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry on his 11th birthday. There he meets his new best friends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), joins the Quidditch team, learns some magic spells, and saves the world by protecting the Sorcerer's Stone from the evil Voldemort (or, he-who-must-not-be-named).

Fans will be relieved to know that Kloves and Columbus stick very closely to Rowling's novel, going so far as to release a two-and-a-half hour film. Despite the extra time however, many delicious details are still excised, such as Harry's pet owl Hedwig, who plays an important part in the book and even has her own personality. She appears briefly in the film, but she doesn't even have a name. Likewise, the rivalry with the snide Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) gets less time in the film.

For fans of the book, Harry's first Quidditch match clocks in as the high point of the film. Rowling did her best to describe the complicated game in the book, but the film justifies itself by outdoing even Rowling's prose. Using every filmic trick he ever learned from Steven Spielberg, Columbus delivers a dazzling match, with zipping and zooming bludgers and quaffles, and dipping and diving Chasers, Beaters and Keepers.

However, for those who haven't read the book, the Quidditch game seems unconnected to anything else in the film. In the book, Harry plays several Quidditch games, each meant to help elevate his self-worth and to continue in the competition between the four houses of Hogwarts (Harry and his crew belong to Griffindor, which competes with the slightly evil Slythern house). But in the film, the one Quidditch game plays like the Pod race in The Phantom Menace, a gratuitous action scene meant to help sell video games.

Columbus scores extra points with the casting of young Daniel Radcliffe (last seen in John Boorman's The Tailor of Panama) who makes a dashing Harry. He brings just the right amount of disheveled loneliness that comes from being a mistreated orphan, a wide-eyed disbelief and a newcomer's heroism. (Even if the celluloid Harry seems slightly passive compared to the print Harry.) I only worry that Radcliffe will age too fast to star in all seven Harry Potters and will have to be replaced at some point.

The rest of the cast -- including Maggie Smith, John Cleese, Fiona Shaw, Richard Harris, John Hurt and Ian Hart -- shines. But I'd like to single out great performances by Robbie Coltrane as Hagrid and Alan Rickman as Professor Snape, who, amidst the sound and fury, manage a few delicious line readings between them.

Columbus drops the ball towards the film's end with some horribly overcooked dialogue and a sledgehammer music score that blares like an unmuffled hot rod engine. This score, by John Williams, doesn't come anywhere near his memorable, adrenaline boosting scores for the Jaws, Star Wars, Superman or Raiders of the Lost Ark adventures. Its overuse on the soundtrack is the film's biggest flaw.

While Columbus blunders forth in the same measured pace for both quiet and action scenes, he still manages to capture the book's spell, which hinges on the fact that no matter how worthless one might feel, we all have special powers within ourselves, and everything could be changed in a heartbeat by a magic letter arriving via owl post. A more subtle or imaginative director (Joe Dante? Terry Gilliam? Tim Burton?) might have elevated the film to greatness, but Kloves and Columbus pull a highly entertaining movie from their silk hat when I was sure that it was empty.

For its 20th anniversary, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment released a fun, two-disc DVD set that includes "Magical Movie Mode" on the second disc. While the movie plays, there are little pop-ups, with commentary by director Columbus, trivia, games, and other little tidbits. Disc 1 contains the theatrical version of the movie, with optional English or Spanish subtitles, and an optional Spanish language track.

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